The headline for this post could probably considered good life advice for many things, but today, I’m applying it for photography.
See the featured photo in this post? A pretty cool shot of my friend Clare Brown from a while back. I can assure you, it wasn’t my first time playing with off camera light. It was probably a 50th or 60th time.
Great photography doesn’t always happen the first time you try a new technique or visit a location. It comes from persistence and perseverance, and the willingness to accept failure and grow from it.
So I’ll show you how that happens. Or at least how it happened for me when it comes to a technique I’m always trying to master – on-location portraiture.
Click to read more.
Tip #1: Accept that what you do the first time will stink
The photos above were from the first time I ever tried on-location portraiture. I clearly have no eye for composition here, nor do I know how to balance my daylight-balanced strobe with the light inside Syracuse University’s Crouse College.
I made the mistake of turning this in to my professor (Sorry, Tony). Of course it stinks. But I put so much effort in! My model (thanks, Kristin!) and I got dressed up! We carried lights! It must earn me a good grade!
Well, no. It doesn’t matter what I wore, how heavy the gear was, or how much time it took. The photo stinks. I needed more practice, and I should have tried it a few more times to get it down before turning it in for a grade.
Tip #2: The second time might not be much better
I tried again. I wanted a brooding portrait of Mark Bacon, and Endicott resident whose property value plummeted after it was discovered that chemicals that IBM dumped into the ground in the 1970s were coming up in vaporous form right where his building was located.
This was a bare-bulb, one-light setup that didn’t do much to reveal what his home-made sign behind him on the wall of his building said. There’s a harsh shadow from Bacon that obscures even more of the sign. Better than the first attempt, not really great though.
So I tried again – this time with cooperative subjects who were understanding of my learning curve instead of people being used in a journalistic story on a deadline. Given the time and space to play – and learning from the previous mistakes – things came out much better.
This sort of thing is what I really should have turned in for my class. Instead, I learned from this on my own time and groused about my grade on what I did turn in (the Crouse College photo).
The lesson? I needed to quit wasting time proving how much effort I put into the lousy photo, and instead devote that energy towards making a better photo.
Tip #3: Detach yourself from the effort used to make the photo
I have long said in my visuals classes that if you climb to the top of Mount Everest, dangle off the edge of a cliff and take a blurry, off-kilter photo of your foot, the amount of effort used to get that photo doesn’t matter. You still only have a blurry, off-kilter photo of your foot. Will you make that same mistake the next time you climb Mount Everest? Probably not.
I once heard another journalism professor say the best writing is rewriting – and so it is for photography. Doing something for the first time will almost never yield good results. Even trying something just a few times can lead to demonstrable improvement.
I’ve watched my son learn how to walk. The first time, he was pretty lousy at it. Now he only has one speed: Full.
The first time I tried location lighting, I was terrible. I didn’t see it then. I see it now.
I’m not perfect at it, but I’m learning – and I’m certainly better at it now than when I started.
I hope this post encourages you to take a hard (and objective) look at your own work – there’s always room for self-growth.